Nurse Instructor, Valerie Geary, teaches a class at the International Institute of Minnesota on July 28, 2022 in Saint Paul, MN. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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A local immigrant resettlement agency has launched the nation’s first guaranteed income program for refugees. 

The pilot program at the International Institute of Minnesota, based in St. Paul, is designed to strengthen the social safety net for refugee families. The pilot program comes at a crucial time—the institute expects to resettle three times the number of refugees this year than it resettled last year.

Twenty-five families enrolled in the program will receive $750 per month for 12 months. The money is distributed without any conditions; recipients can use it at their discretion. More than half of the households in the program are newly arrived Afghan families, said the institute’s executive director, Jane Graupman.

“Everything is just more expensive,” Graupman said of the cost of living in Minnesota. “People have so much worry about how they’re going to build a future for themselves, because everything is new. Having this extra funding is going to help people have a bit of breathing room.”

Graupman said guaranteed income is a relatively new concept that gained popularity during the COVID pandemic. The institute has administered a similar program to help support rent costs. She hopes other refugee resettlement agencies will start similar programs in the future.

The project is funded through private donations and foundation grants. The program is not receiving any public funding. The City of St. Paul helped secure the funding about eight months ago and is also playing an advisory role. The one-year pilot program received its funding from the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and anonymous donors. 

The International Institute of Minnesota is a refugee resettlement agency in St. Paul. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

“The city contacted us and they’re the ones that specifically talked about doing it and had raised the funds for the program,” Graupman said. “It did come together pretty quickly. They did an amazing job raising the funds.”

Kasey Wiedrich, the financial capability manager with the city, said St. Paul has administered similar guaranteed income programs in the past to help low-income families during the pandemic.

The city’s previous guaranteed income programs showed that families prosper when they have money and can make their own decisions about how to use it, said Wiedrich. She is working with the International Institute to develop the refugee program. The International Institute expects to evaluate the program in about six months.

“Giving people flexibility in these uncertain times has been really effective,” Wiedrich said. “How do we turn this into sustainable support for families that gives them the decision-making power to meet their goals and their needs?”

The International Institute began enrolling households in April and sent out the first checks to families in May. By August, the institute enrolled its 25th household. Because it is a pilot program, recipients will only receive benefits for the next 12 months. Eligible households have refugee, Special Immigrant Visa, or Humanitarian Parole status.

Recipients do not have to be unemployed to receive the benefit, but they do need to demonstrate one of the following barriers to employment:

  • Single-parent households with children under the age of 15.
  • Families with four or more children, one working parent, and one parent with obstacles to employment.
  • Single adults with physical or mental illness limiting their ability to work or obtain employment.
  • Families or single adults unable to work due to delays in paperwork processing or other barriers beyond their control.

St. Paul Assistant City Attorney Edmundo Lijo, who also works on immigrant and refugee affairs for the city, debunked the myth that guaranteed income programs for refugees are simply handouts. 

“If they’re stabilized and doing well, businesses prosper, tax bases increase, public safety improves–it has so many collateral benefits that we don’t really think about,” Lijo said. “The federal government and the state should be thinking, ‘Is this something we could be doing on a regular basis?’”

Kalen Flynn is a professor at the University of Illinois and the lead researcher for the International Institute’s guaranteed income program. She said similar programs for struggling families took off nationwide during the pandemic. According to Flynn, people with access to guaranteed income had higher rates of full-time employment. It also significantly improves mental health, she added. 

“The refugee families are getting $750 a month for one year. That’s certainly not enough to pay rent, groceries, and everything else without working,” Flynn said. “But it is enough to increase people’s agency, it increases people’s options, their ability to make choices.”

For example, she said, people in other guaranteed income programs have gone back to college or paid for daycare, housing costs, and basic needs. Families are also able to add memorable experiences with their monthly budget, such as taking children to an art museum or out for ice cream.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.